If you were me, and decided to visit Beijing in April, you would probably forget all about this season called “spring”. You would forget that in “spring” the weather can be damp and chilly. In fact, before traveling you would have your toenails painted a bright shade of red. You would pack your suitcase full of sandals and skirts. You would leave your raincoat and warm rain boots at home.
As a result of your failure to recall “spring”, you would find yourself surprised by the smell of melted snow that lingers on the streets when you arrive on a wet, gray Beijing afternoon. You would need endless coffee and tea to combat the chill of stone streets of the hutongs that felt as if they were coming to life after a cold winter. You would be ill equipped to handle your day on The Great Wall when it is interrupted by freezing rain and hail.
But that’s just if you were me.
The good news was that although it was occasionally chilly and I had absolutely nothing warm to wear on my feet other than sneakers I’d brought for working out, everything else about the week in Beijing was wonderful and refreshing. Apart from on occasional storm, Beijing was in a state of spring that involved fuzzy poplar seeds floating through the air, bright bunches of flowers blooming on trees, and a few days with brilliant, brisk, clear sky.
Although I could spend hours recounting incidents of language and cultural confusion (nearly every meal and taxi ride found Frank and I exchanging confused looks and shrugging apologetically at our patient Chinese counterparts), most of the week was full of surprising discoveries and delightful exchanges. We spent several days just wandering in and out of the ancient hutong neighborhoods in the center of the city and stopping anywhere that looked interesting along the way.
We hit all of the major sites, and found that the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Bell and Drum towers were just as packed with tour groups as we expected but were still incredible to see.
As we are apt to do, we spent lots of time trying new foods and tracking down great places to eat. Two of our very best dinners were at spots that I could not recommend by name, having found them by coincidence and (of course) not being able to read Chinese.
The first of my favorite meals was at a restaurant on the red-lantern-lined stretch of Donghimen Nei called Gui Jie, or “Ghost Street”. After soliciting recommendations, we received such mixed and confusing input that we just took ourselves over to Ghost Street and picked a spot at random that had the most outrageously bright lanterns and an open rooftop from which we could take in a bit more of the cool night. It was a great, albeit uniformed choice. The restaurant was a casual and quick spot (most tables filled with two or three groups before we were even done eating), but offered us spicy buckwheat noodles, sweet and tender ribs, and an endless assortment of grilled meat and vegetables on skewers. All of the grilled items were topped with a smoky spice that numbed my lips and was perfectly complimented by the cold beers we drank. We even tried our hand at the grilled silkworm. (Frank ate his, but I felt compelled to spit mine out after a few seconds of the crunchy/mushy grilled worm combination.)
Near the end of our trip we found ourselves in a casual, family-run spot just off Houhai lake where we were so tempted by so many items on the menu that we ordered enough food to have invited the three tables of people around us to join in the feast (at a cost of less than $15 US).
The servers weren’t quite sure what to do with us and our excessive ordering, but, using every hand gesture imaginable, we conveyed that we were thoroughly pleased with everything they brought us. Dinner included beef with onions in a black pepper sauce. This was brilliantly tender and came to the table sizzling on a cast iron plate, in the style that Frank identified as similar to the sizzling fajita platters we get at Mexican restaurants in the US.
Fresh noodles with vegetables in a savory pork and bean sauce.
As with all great vacations, I was sad to see it come to an end, but appreciated “my” city all the more upon my return. I was surprised and glad to see just how comfortable and familiar Bangkok felt after a week of navigating unfamiliar Beijing.
Bangkok welcomed us back with its characteristic, late-evening sticky heat, familiar smells of food being grilled on the street, and the politeness of formal Thai speech, which both Frank and I can at least attempt to understand. Who would have thought that a place that felt foreign in every way just six months ago could now, in many ways, feel like home.